Friday, January 28, 2022

Let It Back

So I’ve seen the original Let It Be (1970) as much as the next Beatle fan, maybe once more than I probably wished, because in that case more is less. I never reached the desire to parse and decode the hints displaying the inevitable and even then documented Beatle breakup. It’s chronologically and intriguingly unravelling between The White Album and Abbey Road but dumped like leftovers after Paul’s interview/announcement around the McCartney album he wouldn’t be missing the boys so much.

It's the main attraction of the thing. It’s a grainy car crash that ambles, introducing the deceptively objective Frederick Wiseman “just point and shoot” aesthetic to a wider audience who wasn't ready for it. No talking heads, no Orson Welles. Or so we would be led to believe.

Only later do we all realize how much documentaries lie – the placement of a camera a preemptive editorial intrusion, and every edit an inadvertent act of violence.

It’s a product of its time and the resources at Mr. Lindsay-Hogg's disposal, like the original Star Wars now locked away in aluminum and plastic (or carbonite) on OOP laserdiscs. The lousy feelings are part of the birthing, the myth's been broadcast and once it’s in the can you can change your mind but you can't change the original. Everything would be different if done at another time, by other people, in another circumstance.

New versions don’t erase the originals or really supersede them. They do offer new things to buy. For the completists out there that's the best you can expect.

But 51 years later we have a re-write of the Beatles break-up movie. Like any new version of an old favorite it tried to blunt our skepticism by pretending to be closer to perfect. It’s certainly more attune to our own age. Fifty years on not only has the original audience changed, there’s been 10 million more words written to inform a completely new one. The target hasn’t stopped moving, the rumors have been telephoned so often we don’t recognize where it once belonged and an 8-hour version of Let It Be still won’t be enough. It is however an awfully nice new thing to buy.

Peter Jackson’s edit doesn’t change history after all, no worries you rock’n’rollers, so much as give us more of it. Much more of it. Positioned originally as getting to all the nuance, the ”we laughed a lot” version, it now appears - I haven’t memorized the 1970 film -  Jackson’s not only added hours, he’s replaced many events from the original with different coverage as much as possible. He’s writing in fine ink what was only faint pencil shadings before. He knows the general outlines, a mere 81 minutes worth, and proceeds to add 380 minutes of detail work and color correction.

He nods to us with the very first shot, the drum front carried by Mal but adds the slate to authenticate his access from the get. So much coverage they tell us, but with what seems like at least 2 cameras running most times and 10 during the rooftop concert, there’s likely not 57 hours of unique footage as reported but closer 15 to 20 hours total. In other words it’s possible the 8-hour cut could be half of what’s extant. The rest, alternate angles, backs of heads, out of focus?

(The audio’s another story, reportedly over 150 hours worth without corresponding image. And we’ll get to that.)

And it's all been cleaned up and smoothed. More coherently in order even down to a helpful calendar count. As someone who’s read the books, who knows Sulpy and Purple Chick and all three Glyn Johns, the surprise of the thing to me wasn’t so much what’s shockingly new but instead how much is still in it.

It’s not the white-wash. It’s the very definition of a “hang movie.” The flow is the same from Twickenham to Saville Row to the roof. George still walks out (during “Two of Us” but a different one), John’s still pretty sluggish in the early going, and Yoko, ever Yoko, in the corners of the frame knitting. Ringo stares and smokes, but still barely manages to get past 50 words (just), mostly through dint of one conversation near the middle. Paul's the walrus.

It’s still clear they don’t know what they’re doing but at least they talk about that they don’t know what they’re doing. No grain or wrinkles and the audio’s better but boy does one still gets tired of the Twickenham lighting.

Being the most documented music session in history hardcore fans of the period will already expect the flowerpot conversation, Paul calling Linda “Yoko,” the drugs, divorce and a slipping image, songs repeated on the roof, and Dick James about to sell off the catalog. But we don’t use the word “expected” around here. The original’s 5x shorter and surrounded by bad vibes, bad timing, and lawsuits, and the implosions after India. This new version had explicit sign-offs from all surviving members or estates, and still to a surprising extent simply extends what Lindsay-Hogg managed 50 years ago.

The point is the revelations are, to the initiated, restored outtakes rather than sudden reversals of fortune. Looks between them clarify thoughts only hinted at in the tapes. Proof that the tip of the iceberg is sometimes the whole iceberg. These sessions, partly because the project was so fraught, mostly because it was so heavily documented, has only so much it could really rewrite.

There’s ballsy integrity in going for a patience-challenging 8 hours with this minimum of narrative hand-holding. It’s still more Frederick Wiseman than Michael Moore. Jackson knows the value of simply letting the camera keep rolling when you got something unique. He's certainly got that. And there's the initial tightrope walk in letting all these strangers into your playpen to watch you come up with a new record LESS THAN TWO MONTHS AFTER RELEASING A BEST-SELLING DOUBLE ALBUM. Vacations weren't a thing?

What may have more interesting (and fodder for an even longer edit I can’t believe I said that) is what’s still missing.

George ended up pulling his songs from consideration but the decision remains off-screen, not even a subtitle. He becomes Nicky Hopkins for the rest of it, a session hire (and mocking the whole thing by the end trying to out-peacock Ringo, who’s been there the whole time). We get the entire "Daily Sketch" article read aloud (another bold move on Jackson's part) but still can’t know exactly what happened in the kitchen right before George decided to walk. John and Yoko are suffering from the after-effects of a miscarriage (which would help explain the other members’ willingness to suffer her presence) and a heroin addiction (hiding in plain sight). It circles around the problem of Yoko “sitting on an amp” but softens the conflict by insisting she had company up there with Linda and Maureen. We never hear her ominous request for another mike for herself.

Jackson may have us think it’s not his place to do that autopsy. But we hardly see any of Yoko's many vocal interjections and unsolicited advice, beyond a bit of the famous “after George” freak-out. No grain. Everything smooth.

We do get “Taking a Trip to Carolina” on film, complete takes of “No Pakistanis” and “All Things Must Pass.” Jackson’s elegant cheats laying audio over the backs of people’s heads has received much less criticism than Ron Howard’s continuity and sound manipulations in Eight Days a Week. And it turns out Billy Preston was on the roof after all! The most accomplished archival stunt here is how he’s managed to fill out the many footnotes with more scraps and ends, and nods and winks, paying homage to Lindsay-Hogg’s initial aesthetic instead of making it some talking-head mini-series.

And the power dynamics reveal themselves with more time. Paul was never in charge, and he knows it and that's why he's always working so hard at it. George actually has more control than the ostensive leaders. When he puts his foot down everything stops. No one's going to Egypt, of that he makes sure. Ringo's film date is in cement and no one thinks that can be changed either. Glyn Johns seems always this close to being dismissed. And when John speaks, even if it's in monosyllables everyone stops to listen. He's still the leader even when he doesn't want to be there and has no songs.

Sometimes the real story really is in the footnotes. This is like a 900-page novel with 600 pages of filler. The original feels like the Cliff Notes. If you're in the tent this is a bottomless giftcard. Fifty years later the remaining Beatles have given us a longer version of the same thing. An extended alternative take.

The stake-holders dissed on this period for years after it happened and no one was happy, suggesting their winter of discontent had already cool-set even as Glyn Johns tried to embrace the intended vibe (getting back to basics) three times with three different mixes before Spector came in with a new color Apple. Paul was still trying to rewrite the original record himself in 2003 with his own.

It's all too much. Let It Be should have been a double album as well.




Wednesday, June 17, 2020

They Lose Their Noses

I've written about Chinatown before. It's seminal to my appreciation of what movies could do. I caught it years after it came out in a rep house on a double bill with, no kidding, Byrum's Inserts. The savvy of that double bill only now occurs to me.

I expected a Chandler/Cain riff starring Jack Nicholson in full leading-man glamour mode. Yeah, I got all that too. And a dozen layers of everything else from design to tone to performance in apparent perfect harmony, in exact concert to its time and also timelessly ageless.

Chinatown now looms large in the the myth of New Hollywood, a view maybe more revisionist than prescient. It's both post-modern and retro; the easy "best screenplay ever written" answer (regardless of reality); the event horizon when all of 1973's MVPs were in the same rooms and working on the same project. It didn't do so well when it came out, regardless of subsequent opinion. And it's the perfect example of worst title ever is the best title ever only after you've seen it.

And to think for most of the early drafts they weren't even going to end it with a scene in Chinatown.

Sam Wasson's 2020 book-length examination of Chinatown, The Big Goodbye has the subtitle "Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood." He's a young(ish) turk who's written about Blake Edwards and Bob Fosse to good effect in the past, other touchstone creators whose main work I presume was before his time. I get it. The nostalgia for the '60s is only shared by those who weren't here, the famous saw goes. No one over 50 likes Boogie Nights.

Chinatown isn't perfect -- no film is -- but Polanski has gotten as close to anyone in avoiding obvious mistakes (at least on the big screen). Knife in the Water may be the most perfect film I've seen, even with some rough dubbing. Every edit is frame-perfect. Wasson knows Chinatown is important. It symbolizes the end of an era, the last great roar of the bohemian elite in the toy palace built out of the rubble of the Easy Rider republic. As recounted in other works of the period by Richard LeGravenese and Ted Demme, and by Peter Biskind, the "New Hollywood" barely lasted under the weight of its own excesses six years.

Wasson's going to make a point by going behind the scenes of the bastard child of old and New Hollywood, a script which started as an annoyance Robert Towne had over a nearby development project (says here) and was rendered into dark cinema by Polanski still in the traumatic throes of the Manson murders (says here).

How did this wondrous piece of art get made and mean so much?

And... here is where my troubles began. You know the genre of film books that seem determined to unearth all the unsavory gossip of famous or infamous celebrities. They're not so smart, they have worse relationship problems than you ever could. No one reads. Oh, and the drugs. How the mighty have fallen. You're better than that lot. Wasson has quite a group here: the hypochondriac and insecure writer Towne; failed-actor-now-studio-chief Robert Evans trying to turn the Titanic of Paramount Pictures around under the cold eyes of Gulf & Western; lead actor Nicholson who nearly never made it as an actor and is taking this lead role as seriously as he can muster; and director Polanski, notorious for more things than there are stars in the heavens.

And Wasson will remind us. Over and over. He opens with a recounting of the Cielo Drive murders and Polanski's inability to get over it. His obsessive staging of every violent scene in subsequent films. Towne so asthmatic he can't work, hits his girlfriend, can't finish the script, takes credit for somebody else's work. Evans endlessly bed-ridden with his sciatica, discovering cocaine. Nicholson doesn't know who his real father is, and can't stay faithful to Anjelica Huston.

The overarching effect is there's no way this dysfunctional group will make anything note-worthy, mired as they are in their own self-absorbed problems. Wasson is almost dismissive of the work, with a couple interesting exceptions. Nothing but professional praise for Richard Sylbert's production design and Anthea Sylbert's costumes. And a haliographic revelation of Towne's long-secret collaborator Edward Taylor, with whom Towne tested every script, note and idea throughout his career.

Evans can't decide if he's a producer or an executive. The music sucks. John Huston's drunk. It doesn't have an ending.

There's a precedent to this. Casablanca is the other famous classic cobbled together, nearly on accident in the last minute, way more than the sum of its parts, not solely attributable to any one but instead the perfect melange of efficient direction, unfussy writing of an overly complicated story, and damn lucky casting. How did it work? It just does.

Wasson doesn't let anyone off the hook in the last pages, either. Polanski drugs and sleeps with a 15-year-old model and has to go into exile. Evans quits/gets fired from Paramount. Towne ends up in a fog of cocaine and can't finish Greystoke either. 15 years later Nicholson fucks up directing the sequel, The Two Jakes.

As the book goes you realize Wasson is more a collector of stories rather than a storyteller. Unlike the film, the book is less than the sum of its parts. Wasson's point in the subtitle is barely addressed. There is no "end of Hollywood." Instead, Billy Jack has proven you can saturate book a film and make huge grosses "no matter how bad it is" and then, Jaws came out. Chinatown is the end of Hollywood simply by nature of its date of release. You can't make a picture like this anymore.

The most obvious new primary research here seems to be Wasson's description of Edward Taylor helping Towne through his career, often sitting with him for days and weeks at a time writing scripts, scenes, and dialogue, as well as insights into Towne's personal life from his ex-wife Julie Payne, whom he lived with during the '70s. While Payne's personal life may have inspired some of Chinatown's twists, it's hard not to finally come away with the sense Wasson includes this material because it makes Towne look just a little bit worse.

Wasson's blindness to a certain bias towards tabloid dismissal appears in cold print on page 314. On the disappointing subsequent careers of his protagonists, he says of Nicholson's post-1974 work: "...[Nicholson's] productivity had declined and the films he chose were largely those that offered him opportunities for flamboyant self-parody (The Shining) and amenable fluff (The Witches of Eastwick)."

Think what you will of Nicholson's wired performance in The Shining, the reason to star in Kubrick's reconstruction of horror being an opportunity for "flamboyant self-parody" is probably not near the top of the list. You could question Kubrick's choice of takes and we know there were hundreds of them. (George C. Scott also knows a performance is often not yours to finesse. But he was warned he'd get his hair mussed.)

And to suggest George Miller's 1987 Witches with its industrial, feminist, Updike-ian undercurrents as mere "fluff," well-produced as it is, seems a serious mis-reading.

Wasson wants to place Chinatown in the crux between an old Hollywood (already dead or dying as of 1968, per Mark Harris) and something new, also dying, and towards a more cynical era. But probably being a product of that more cynical age, he doesn't trust the process. He diminishes the achievement of Chinatown by not taking its creators very seriously and pushes the cynical period earlier than perhaps he realizes.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Hollywood's Rainbow

So as a "movie" person it seemed de rigueur to see the new Tarantino joint, Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood.

Funny title. It's a reference to Leone, of course. But also that fey ellipsis suggests a fairy tale or a Disney princess movie from the '90s.

Spoiler alert! (Every article about Once...Hollywood requires a spoiler alert.) It's a Disney princess movie after all.

Not in the text, to be clear. There's a kingdom, and an oppressive hierarchy that prevents our hero from finding true love and happiness. The historical longevity of this kingdom is suspect but subliminal (the functional industrial mechanics are depicted in quotidian details. Fancy camera moves, an actor's dilemma.). The film is chaste; no one's looking to get laid. (The wife, apparently accidentally acquired and barely able to speak English, serves as a distraction and is put back to sleep when her plot use is over. There aren't even any topless women in the Playboy mansion sequence.) Nothing really hedonistic or Fatty Arbuckle about this version of Hollywood.

Our dreamy lead just wants to be with the person he loves the most. You know those movies where the hero asks the girl if she wants to go get a soda and when she says yes it's like the most important triumph of his life? Here he wants his buddy to watch his TV show with him, and when he's already bought the beer and has a plan to order pizza, there's an emotional sense of unspoken camaraderie that's strangely touching at that moment.

And it even has a happily ever after. Our lovers are separated physically, but only until tomorrow, and they're as close as a hand on a piece of glass. This isn't First Man hand on a piece of glass. This is Pickpocket hand on a piece of glass. "Visit me in the hospital," he says. You know he will.

But to be clear, it's also a Leone western. Gunslingers fighting in the landscape of long ago, when things were simpler, fighting forces larger than one man. Dispensing personal hand-to-hand justice when the system, whether it be corrupt oil barons or cynical Hollywood hangers-on, oppress those around them.

Plus, there's sure an inordinate amount of TV western footage in this. Does that make it a western or just a film with westerns in it? Hold that thought.

And like all Leone's westerns (even Once Upon A Time... in America), it's about the death of the frontier. The coming of the railroad. In its way, civilization (whether in the form of Claudia Cardinale or the Teamsters) means the good times are coming to an end.

And what does Tarantino do with this meta/ post-modern conceit? Hollywood fairy tale as western? He makes it a love letter, but he needs an ending. Instead of the railroad coming to town or Ms. Cardinale marking fenceposts on the homestead, he turns to the one event in numerous biographies that mark the death of the Hollywood scene. That day in 1969 when Tate & co. were visited on Cielo Drive by Manson's girls. And Tex.

Tex. Yee-haw. Yes, it's a western all right.

We've heard it many times and not just from (but maybe originating from?) Joan Didion. The hippy vibe turned dark that month. You couldn't keep your door unlocked or pick up hitchhikers anymore. Both featured prominently in this film (Spoiler alert!). The rich turned inward. And three months later it's Altamont. What was next, the Beatles breaking up? Like I said. He ends up making it a fairy tale. If only real life could be like this.

Tarantino makes the ultimate hang-out movie, spending 2+ hours recreating the end of the '60s, channeling Route 66 and Jacques Demy's Model Shop, and withholds until he can't anymore, a final scene of the Wild Bunch ultra-violence, that's cathartic, problematic, beautiful. Stops time.

But because of that, it's hopelessly inconclusive. That car did drive away with the woman who still has a knife, after all. We know what happens next... or do we?

And Sharon Tate lives to make more movies, though probably no more with Roman Polanski. Even though in this film, she's already dead. A dream of lost potential, frozen in the moment where fame is nothing more than a 50-year-old doorman in a theatre who lets her in for free. The same theatre where Julian Kaye confronts Stratton's henchman in American Gigolo.

There are two Hollywoods. The one we wish were true and the boring reality behind the scenes. There are two Rick Daltons, one who cries when he blows a line and one who killed his wife. (Or at least, doubled by one who did.) There are two Sharon Tates, the one up on the screen who walks in a kind of blessed bliss, and the one who never rose above true-crime footnote. There's the end of the '60s, and the false historical pause that allows them to continue on in our dreams, at least past the credits, at least for a little while.

And boy howdy, Tarantino is going to give his version the deepest rabbit-hole Thomas Pynchon treatment he can. Reference after reference, neon signs and real-time TV Guide covers, fake movies and deep-cut album tracks. Kurt Russell as a stuntman and actors who didn't wear helmets on their motorcycles in real life. What is fake and what does the stuff in the background really mean?

Every movie title you see is one of those old stuffy Otto Preminger movies (or might as well be). Not a reference to Midnight Cowboy (1969), Medium Cool (1969), or Easy Rider (1969) (besides a dismissive aside) in sight. Even the set design is in denial about the brick wall that's about to be hit.

Every corner is filled with something. A piece of an Italian locandina, Steve McQueen who famously claimed he was invited to the bungalow that night but ended up going with another girl (because he wasn't Sharon's type anyway), none of which is explained in this movie but it's all right there for those who are not blind.

It's almost too much. Your eyes and your ears can't see it all, can't see enough, are taking in too many things. Subtext, inferences, nods and indulgent pauses. Artifice and the makings of it. We get fan service, Pitt takes off his shirt, we get fetishistic close-ups of needles literally dropping on records and almost too many shots of feet, bare and shod. Beautiful close-ups of headlights.

And yet not a single shot of someone tuning or turning on a car radio. It seems whenever you start a car the music simply starts. You don't get to see a stereo dial in close-up until you've smoked a little LSD. Which is perfect.

My ultimate opinion of the film is mixed at the moment. Which is how I judge most recent Tarantino films. I see them two times or even three, and the good parts get better and the bad parts become worse. Can't ever write them off, though. They're still the best movies to talk about in the lobby when you're a bored usher (as in my earlier formative years).  

This thing's a dream, veers close to being a nightmare just to pull the celluloid curtain away (or over) at the last moment. ...Hollywood is incredibly well-made and Tarantino's confidence has built to the point where he can spend what seems like 20 minutes recreating a melodramatic late '60s horse-opera scene shot on a sound stage (with over 10 minutes of lead-up) that's pure minor back-story, a scene any other director in any other era, pre- or post "golden age," would have cut down to 2 minutes. Or completely.

It's indulgent, delicious in how it recreates the fantasy of the industrial complex, too long and yet never boring. Even as it disingenuously foregrounds what happens in front of the camera as more important than what happens behind, or in preproduction or in post.

Tarantino knows damn well how important good, compelling performances are to the success of films -- we refer you to Travolta in Pulp Fiction which I maintain is the primary reason that film didn't tank under its own weight. But who wants to see where the real work happens, in the research department, in razor cutting, designing crane shots, when we all know we're happier watching Brad Pitt drive around in a DeVille listening to the Mamas and the Papas.

So what to make of this technicolor object, told with careful and indulgent care, a shiny object floating in the sea of sequels hiding an iceberg of work and references, and soaking with cultural artifacts made important purely by the attention being bestowed on them even as they remain out of the direct spotlight?

DeCaprio's Roman adventure ("Roman") is either a brilliant nod to the industrial function of international funding practices in the '60s or just a visual rhyme/pun. Rick Dalton uneasily moves towards domestication at the end. Is his new wife his Claudia Cardinale, his civilizing influence, or an excuse to get a girl in her underwear on screen a moment for the big finish?

Tarantino doesn't seem to need to answer this. Probably more interesting that he doesn't. She's unimportant except as a punchline, an indicator that shirtless Brad Pitt will indeed be in the sequel. Because we know how those things go; you don't break up the team. You also leave a bad guy to come back because next time it'll be more personal.

I know that won't really happen. Spoiler alert.

On the first viewing my enjoyment of this film is in direct relation to how much I know the back story. I drove those streets in LA and Burbank. I've seen those movies and played with those toys. The movie seems to be going for something more, but I'm not sure it gets there or even exactly where that is. I imagine a younger generation who didn't grow up watching episodic westerns on TV or who don't know what Spahn ranch is or what Charlie's girls did and would do, who might find this film incomprehensible.

That's part of its charm. It's a focused valentine to one person, speaking a secret language. Quentin, it's taken me so long to come to you.

* screengrab from the blog

Monday, October 29, 2018

hEllO mOthEr!

Okay, is two times the charm?

Darren Aronofsky's mother! (so capitalized) seems nice. A amiable and unassuming domestic family drama.

Were it so. This Molotov cocktail, designed intentionally to incite, was insufferable to me the first time I watched it, and also as fascinating, broken, and audacious as anything else I used to obsess over when I wasn't quite sure what the actual rhetorical, industrial, or genre rules were in filmic story-telling.

We would watch The Man Who Fell To Earth, Blue Velvet, Plan 9 From Outer Space, or Special Effects not because they were particularly insightful or moving. Because they seemed to come from another planet. People who stuttered and couldn't get their consonants out. Films circling around some metaphoric truth but unable to speak the right language.

They're all genre films. But they don't follow the rhetorical rules. They lurch and fail to explain. They spend too long motivating what's already understood. They hide their intentions poorly, say the quiet part loud, and obscure the loud parts in hyperbole, or hysteria, or drowned out in even louder noise.

It's often blamed on the unintentional failure of the proper emphasis. How boring would Blue Velvet have been if Sidney Lumet directed? Or if Pulp Fiction had been told chronologically? I'm all for movies that go off the rails, or maybe have no rails to begin with.  Aronofsky seems to have embraced the "hysterical" part.

I don't think there's anything unintentional about mother! It pretty clearly screams early its uber-trappings as idyllic domestic drama as ripe for decoding. Visions of beating hearts and bloody floor openings presumably aren't to be taken literally, and a rogue's gallery of arbitrary visitors into the kingdom of the needy creator (Bardem) lead to the destruction of his talismanic crystal egg in his study, which he thereafter shutters closed, ensuring no one else will enter. Should our lead character (Lawrence) take this seriously or personally? A disorienting, hyper-subjective mise-en-scene centered on our heroine frustrates and compels us to watch. Wondering when the rabbit scene is, waiting for him to pull out an axe, or even just the mother part.

The real screams come soon after.

It helps to know your film history. It also makes you impatient with ground already trod. Mr. Aronofsky clearly had big metaphors in mind, and relishes the cognitive challenges of making plot into thesis, philosophy into conflict. He's made dreams carnal, reality into hallucinations. From Pi to Noah, he reduces (elevates?) plot mechanics using literal metaphor into character studies. He strips his symbols of literal meaning by making them too literal.

In mother!, I feel he's stripped his metaphor of outside meaning and all he has left are the symbols. It's a POV fallacy, which leaves us looking in the wrong direction, but the plot's hiding in plain sight. As an afterthought, detritus of the grand experiment, scratches in the bark that mean nothing to those who don't know what they're looking at. Have some more water.

No wonder people hated it. Both too confrontational and weirdly obvious, mother! boldly breaks what we would consider proper emphasis between text and subtext. The first and best hint is in the title font itself, a lowercase one-word title misdirecting you to a pretentious yet quiet drama of domesticity and yet insisting on its self-importance by that exclamation point.

I swear, it made me miss the restraint of Larry Cohen.

Friday, April 13, 2018


Here's a still from Losey's The Damned, a rather rare cold-war SF-y film to see, at least up to now, from 1962.

I remember where I first saw this shot, published I think in John Baxter's 1970 Science Fiction in the Cinema. People nowadays don't remember such things, but before home video, let alone IMDB, most of the information you could get about films was from survey books like Baxter's, Carlos Clarens' Illustrated History of of the Horror Film, the various volumes of the Barnes' International Film Guide Series, and any number of those Walden Books' pictorial histories.

Make no mistake these were basically picture books, and in the pre-internet days, a good picture would capture your imagination like no collection of words possibly could. And for the most part that was all these authors had. That and old trade reviews, barely remembered viewings when they were younger or other 2nd hand sources. They couldn't exactly rent the things at the local Blockbuster either.

These stills served as visual relics in thin volumes of holy palimpsests. It was only later, when you discovered the late night listings in the TV Guide, your ability to program the VCR, or the rep house 15 miles out of your way, that you pulled those books down again to review where, exactly, you might have first learned about the Quartermas Xperiment.

Or Curse (Night) of the Demon. Or Myra Breckinridge.

You slowly managed most of the films in the supposed "canon," as deemed by these writers and these publishers. There's an entire generation who learned about classic horror films from Clarens, for good or ill, with wonky plot summaries, the mistakes and the omissions practically hard-coded into our (non-)memories of these films. I poured over the Tantivy Marx Brothers: Their World Of Comedy (1968) by Allen Eyles (the 6x6 square British edition) before I ever had access to the rest of the Marx films, trying to make sense of my first accidental viewing of A Night at the Opera one night on TV. Imagine reading that mad and short book about their career before having seen any of their other films (and trying to imagine Duck Soup only through a print description).

Stills from Seconds and The Manchurian Candidate made you hunger for any Frankenheimer you could find.  (Birdman of Alcatraz was your solid base hit.) Atkins went on about Metropolis, with pictures and everything in his book. And would we ever see the uncut The Wicker Man? And who the hell was Carl Dreyer?

Being a film aficionado, let alone a completist, was a long difficult journey, often involving drives to theatres in nearby towns, evenings in scary triple-bill houses on skid-row (how I saw Count Yorga after reading about it in Cinefantastique), and decades.

Danny Peary's Cult Movie books were more specific and unlike many of the others from the '60s, clearly written by someone who had actually seen the films rather than only read about them in other, older books.

When at last you caught up with a film that you had lodged in your head for years, since that first compelling, impossible black-and-white still while browsing the used bookstore shelf, it almost didn't matter whether it lived up to expectations. You began to write your own book in your head, with your own plots, your own omissions, your own canon.

The Damned is due to come out from Indicator/ Powerhouse sometime this year on blu-ray. Finally. It turns out it was already released on a Hammer "Icons of Suspense" DVD collection since 2010.

I could have satisfied my curiosity 8 years ago. Damn it. I'm not sure I want to see it anyway. Its power as a still, with the man in a rubber suit, the child looking at a flower on the edge of a cliff. What power this unseen post-bomb Hammer film from the early '60s has by remaining undefined, unseen. Lost.

Damned to obscurity and a cultural mis-remembrance. Embalmed in a book, out of print, and etched by a still in a generation of older film goers who couldn't see it for 40 years.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Wonder Women

I finally caught up with Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman (2017) and found it much better than what I think most superhero movies tend to be. Full disclosure, I really don’t see superhero movies. The 3 Iron Man films, for various reason, were my fill up to now.

What’s most interesting about WW, and less discussed lately than a couple months ago, is how political a woman-centric superhero movie was. Not because it was particularly transgressive, except it automatically is by dint of its mere depiction of gender roles, let alone treatment of them. And even from my limited POV of a white male, there remains a strong sense of empowerment to have Gal Godot take up the (slightly adolescent) ass-kicking mantle peppered with an oh-so-serious alternate history, proto-Spongebob Nietzschean philosophy, fake retro fashion, geek trainspotting, and plenty of beefcake cameos.

This is the superhero film the women have been asking for. Or is it? Is it enough to switch the cast sheet, or as Carol Clover argues, maybe it doesn't even matter your sex if we all want is the protagonist to fight the evil they're facing, and get out at the end to star in the sequel.

There was a similar inkling during The Force Awakens (2015), when Princess Rey wields that light saber. I saw at least one post how ecstatic it was for women viewers to finally see a heroine positioned squarely in the center of the current popular culture myth.

This isn’t the place to analyze women in traditionally male roles, or even to discuss why there have to be such things in our entertainment. I wish we were past all this. I’m just noting that in geek culture lately, you got some cross-dressing that gets a lot more political attention and resonates beyond what it might actually deserve.

Don’t get me wrong. But I'm afraid Gal Godot in that short skirt sold as many tickets as the filmmakers' feminist creed.

Men have been getting this wrong for a long time. Angelina Jolie with hand guns and Gina Corano kicking guys in the balls appeal to 12-year-old impulses in male audiences. Not gonna convince your wife to come see those on a Saturday night.

James Cameron sticks a horse-cock in his heroine’s hands and he thinks he’s doing feminism. Even Kathryn Bigelow thinks that makes characterization. She's wrong, too.
A long time ago (in a galaxy far away), Aliens was playing at the movie theatre I worked at. Giant hit,  you’ve heard of it, and the dynamic of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) protecting the young Newt (Carrie Henn) from the bad ass mother alien was powerful emotional stuff. The big moment near the end that James Cameron engineers so well, Ripley appears in the mechanical Transformers-style skip-loader and snarls, “Get away from her, you bitch!”

A scream filled the theatre, the ultimate sense of female empowerment and maternal catharsis. And the scream was from the women. There was an emotional connection beyond a simple action-movie beat.

Hell, just look at the poster. I wasn’t sure Cameron knew exactly what he’d inadvertently stumbled onto there. (After True Lies, I was sure he didn't know.)

Now, with the huge positive financial responses to Rey and Diana, Hollywood have decided maybe they're onto something. And -- I now might be seeing more superhero films.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Buffalo Roam

We miss Hunter S. Thompson more than ever recently. His journalistic viewpoint aside, his character is as large and as imposing as any on the political landscape, although it's generally considered he deteriorated into a sideshow (back into a sideshow?) after Nixon's fall from grace, which he took partial credit for.

Shout Factory has just released Art Linson's 1980's "Where The Buffalo Roam" on blu-ray,  previously MIA in its original form because of some troublesome music rights that couldn't get cleared until now.

It's Hollywood's first foray into codifying Thompson's unique brand of journalistic anarchy, a vein with a rich history in movies I've written about before. Newspaper writers are outsiders, colorful, generally "good guys" and tend to find themselves in the middle of the action. Without having to shoot anybody.

The film is loosely based on his article in Rolling Stone ("The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat" in 1977) about the disappearance of his friend/lawyer/partner in crime Oscar Acosta. You may know Acosta by Benicio Del Toro's depiction in Gilliam's Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. I think this article was about the time in which Hunter became unreadable to me. At this point he'd become Hunter-exclamation-point (trademark pending) and was more concerned with playing the brand cashing the checks than in adding to his written legacy. Nothing wrong with the Examiner columns. I just like his earlier funnier work. As it is, this first version of history is instructive and on its face much more transgressive than Gilliam's strangely conservative take, and is poking down at HST himself as the asshole he really is. Even though he was listed as a consultant.

It's the first directorial effort of Art Linson, who previously produced rock'n'roll stalwarts as Car Wash and American Hot Wax, and starred Bill Murray, still not sure what he wanted to do with his SNL fame (this just before Meatballs and Stripes). Later he'd figure out he wanted to be in Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch movies.

The film rides the supposed anti-establishment charm of HST and a weird Nixon nostalgia, produced forebodingly at the beginning of the Reagan era. It ends up, accidentally, as a paean to a mode of press coverage we didn't know we wouldn't see again.

And it's packaged as a buddy film. Murray gives a coked-up Snagglepuss performance that Johnny Depp would channel in Gilliam's Fear and Loathing, hanging, fighting and increasingly focused on the yin-yang of his relationship with Lazlo (the "Buffalo"). As in any good buddy film, Peter Boyle (as Lazlo) goes one way while Hunter tries to pull him in another. Lazlo veers increasingly out of his lane while Thompson, determined to bring down his man (Nixon), gets closer to the white-tiled corridors of power, with many antic stops along the way.

The Buffalo is the metaphor of chaos HST is either siding with or fighting. Lazlo's more radical than the radicals he's representing, while meanwhile, Thompson screams at phones, breaks statues, drinks with apparent ill effect, shoots guns, gives his press credentials to total strangers, slips drugs to straights. It's all slapstick background to his real goal, which is to get a story, or simply, to be in one more exciting than the one he's assigned to cover.

And Linson in 1980 pulls it all off with straight-faced incorrectness. Gilliam's version, 10 years later and behind the curve, seems too reverential to embrace Thompson's true thuggish nature, too anxious and guilty to let loose, even as it falls head first into the shiny neon of CGI hallucinations. If only Alex Cox had stayed on the project.

Linson is just happy he got Bill Murray. He should be. It's a velvet-smooth performance, a barrel-aged sing-song Venkman, deeply flawed with his insecurities completely under the waterline. He's a crooked top that seems to gain momentum with each careen off the bumpers of authority.

Spoiler alert. Near the end, HST finally comes face to face with Nixon on the campaign trail, at a urinal in a men's room. Apparently based on HST's single true-to-life encounter with Nixon, the most powerful man in the country and the clown reporter make small talk. Thompson, having appropriated the credentials of another reporter ("Harris from the Post") strips down while he talks. People in this world are either "screwheads" or doomed. Is this an existential identity crisis?

The scene both belittles and raises both men, and beat journalism and high-stakes politics, to the level of inscrutable metaphor and myth.

The film is busy and sloppy. Grunge-period Neil Young and Jimi Hendrix pepper the soundtrack. But the film is trying to get at something. The final scene has Thompson's wearing the disguise that got him the farthest, the suit and tie in his Harris persona (hair all slicked back), having gotten closer to the innermost bowels of power he ever has before. And that's in a goddamn men's room.

His triumph is ephemeral. Thompson ends up standing on a lone airstrip, pleading with his gonzo friend Lazlo, trying to talk sense. But the Buffalo is onto another journey, heading for a far-off jungle to fight another vague rebellion. This time he'll disappear for good, having (literally) lost the map, unable to convince Hunter.

Who would? Thompson's original article insisted Acosta was the crazy one. No one could control the buffalo. And he's left alone on a runway, the wind swirling his tie and fire extinguisher foam spattered on his ill-gotten suit.

The movie suggests he goes on fighting the good fight. But reading it differently (and now we know Thompson drank himself into obsolescence, and in an era where journalism is now more embattled than busman's folly), Thompson had been co-opted by that 3-piece suit. It's as if he's realized, "I'm crazy, but not that crazy." He's been tamed, trapped by his appetite to get inside -- and his own inability to break the rules that really matter. The ones that really meant something.

Thompson's childhood pranks are just that: adolescent, sexless and ultimately inconsequential.

The film, loose-limbed and compelling as it is, both holds up Thompson as a figure of anarchic fun and damns him as someone who didn't have the conviction to, maybe, be crazy enough. Don't worry, it's all an act.

The film didn't do well when it was released. No one knew what to make of it, or Murray. And Hunter Thompson was no popular Woodstein hero figure. A cinematic footnote because of some Motown tracks (and possibly Murray's singing a couple bars of "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds"), now resurfaces 35 years later, a completely different kind of history lesson.

Linson directed one other film, The Wild Life, Cameron Crowe's follow-up to Ridgemont High, and would produce The Untouchables, Dick Tracy and Fight Club among a respectable array of films. Hunter S. Thompson stopped his own presses in 2005. Bill Murray reportedly bad-mouthed the film, even though it may be his best sustained performance.

As a comedy, it's a bit of a failure. It's one of those films that only get really funny the third time you see it like Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai or Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It's really a drama, with funny people in it. Now it has the unexpected subtext of showing the downside of being a counter-cultural icon, before anyone involved quite knew what kind of prison that could end up being.

No wonder Thompson didn't like it. He saw his own future, and it wasn't playing himself.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Fellini In Order

I haven't been able to find anything worth watching on Netflix lately. All old shows and flashy fake sitcoms.

Amazon Prime's selection, beyond the darts at a more meaningful new internet TV, is a disaster. They even took off Take This Job And Shove It last year.

So for the last month or so I've been watching old stuff again, like I've been promising myself for years. My own personal film festival.

I always told myself I should really revisit was Fellini's oeuvre; I'd seen maybe half of them over the years, out of order of course and mostly the classic middle period. Some of the early neo-realist ones eluded me and most of the tired later films never made it to my attention.

He directed a couple dozen films along with a handful of shorts; not insurmountable to get through the entire list. Most all are easily available at the local video store -- if you have one. The local video store without a Fellini section isn't in business anymore anyway. And if you have to, there are streaming options.

To follow an artist with such a signature personality and outlook as Federico is to newly understand his development as if it were preordained. His work breaks down into 3 distinct phases. The neo-realist/rural vs. urban cautionary tales, going from Variety Lights (1951) to La Dolce Vita (1960), is the first, where his characters are invariably diminished in social stature while aiming at something much larger and likely impossible to attain, whether it be fame, understanding of a spouse, to simple grace. La Strada (1954) is the closest to a parable outlining his concept, highlighting what people do what they do, even if they don't know they're doing it.

This is the meat and the heart of Fellini's stature, the awards and the international recognition. The second phase begins under what must have been the growing fame and an existential crisis first hinted at in La Dolce Vita. In his first entry post that glorious signature bummer, "The Temptation of Dr. Antonio" in the portmanteau film Boccaccio '70 (1962) he's magically developed (perhaps helped by access to more money) the baroque camera moves and surreal design sense that not only defies narrative but, somehow, will soon become it. Nothing can be taken literally anymore.

The fragmented and fanciful episodes of 8 1/2 (1963) and Juliet of the Spirits (1965), incomplete searches for identity and meaning, are better served embodied in his larger historical epics. The hippie Fellini Satyricon (1969) and Fellini's Casanova (1976) (both using the possessive in the title, not an accident) are parables and have little to do with history as much as Fellini's own personal artistic crises. The title "Fellini Satyricon" places the creator on equal footing as the source work, while "Fellini's Casanova" reasserts the fact that both these sources, actually age-old classics, were more known by their authors ("Have your read your Petronius today?") until being appropriated and re-authored by a new maestro.

A film near the end of this cycle, Fellini's Roma (1972) (that possessive again), highlights the friction he's exploring with narrative from the other side of history. He's taking on the documentary form full-face, and, starting with the film-maker as character in 8 1/2 through A Director's Notebook (1969), a behind-the-scenes film for television, Fellini has moved off graceless savages and is increasingly interested in how film itself constructs the story. Even a story presumably "autobiographical" and true.

Since La Dolce Vita with a journalist at its heart, to 8 1/2 which treats film-making as existential burden, to his short in 1968's Spirits of the Dead, about a decadent actor who sells his soul to get out of the business (and of life), Fellini investigates how film tells lies about itself. "I'm a born liar." Roma is Satyricon's good twin, not really about Rome, and not really a documentary. It's self-consciously staged, and includes a character called Federico Fellini who's the director of the film you're watching, played by Fellini himself.

How meta can you get? The process doesn't seem to matter anymore. Casanova is arguably the most lush, decadent, personally depressed treatment to assert that the "artiste" is no longer happy when he does it too long. Whatever you may define "it" to be.

This middle period is soaked with self-disdain, a surprising lack of fun (in spite of the color of Juliet and 8 1/2's circle-of-life finish, which seems forced and half-hearted, I'm now reminded, ending on a minor key with that out-of-tune rag-tag band as light fades).

Was it the money? The girls? The drink? Film-making used to be so much more fun when people (and the producers) weren't paying so much attention.

The last period goes from Orchestra Rehearsal (1978) to the final The Voice of the Moon (1990). The budgets are shrinking, the triumph of Amarcord (1973) had been waterlogged by the failure of Casanova, and his themes seem less relevant, playing in minor keys with limited aspirations. Had Fellini taken the criticism of extravagance and arrogance to heart? Amarcord certainly seems a mature and measured melting of what we liked before, the perfect marriage of La Dolce Vita and Roma without the crazy bits, his nostalgic Limelight.

But -- Chaplin didn't stop making movies after that either. City of Women (1980) reads as a weak-wristed swipe at feminism by a provincial misogynist who's not sure he wants to change his ways, and his takes on television, both Orchestra and Ginger and Fred (1986), are grumpy and begrudging, considering it was TV money that got them funded in the first place.

The familiar playfulness with the documentary format reaches its naked apogee with Intervista (1987) which adds Fellini's nostalgia about being "Fellini" with poster-topping cameos of Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg, awkwardly wishing they were younger, in a film that makes you wish they were, too.

I found it astounding how many of Fellini's themes persist through his 40-year career, many present from the start. The mode of attack and resources at his disposal changed dramatically after La Dolce Vita's success, and then again 10 years later with Casanova's failure. Yet you can watch a film from the mid '50s and see its echo in the '80s. He continually shows a curiosity about people, a gentle hand against questionable behavior, a willingness to explore how art can reveal the heart of the most ugly character.

In all of them, Fellini "hates the sin but loves the sinner." And not one of these felt a chore to sit through. Okay, maybe The Clowns (1970). That one was tough. I don't get the clown thing he's trying for.

And, it's a misconception Fellini was obsessed with clowns. This isn't something we see through his entire career. Sure, there's a thin layer of grotesquerie, really a showman's distraction, and side characters with too much make-up and funny hair inserted for effect, and certainly all with an underlying threat of artistic anarchy.

Maybe that was his point. Maybe I took it too literally. Maybe I should watch again.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016


N.B.: This one is a little inside.

* * *

I like podcasts -- they make my commute go by quicker and more productive. You should really try it (I know you won't listen).

One of my favorite used to be a horror-film one called Killer POV, from Geeknation, which ran for 2 years from April of 2015 to this year, running 145 episodes.

The show was comprised of 3 horror writers/"experts," Rob Galluzzo, Rebekah McKendry, and Elric Kane, some of those names possibly familiar to you from Fangoria's pages, Icons of Fright and other various online sources, talking about current and classic horror films. This motley but well-matched collection of film nerds (and I mean that in the best possible sense) mixed a flavor of populism (Galluzzo), academia (McKendry), and elite snobbery (Kane), and the talks were loose, hip, usually centering on a theme for each episode, from horror comedies to DIY to Christmas to anthologies, to interviewing horror filmmakers and icons in depth like never heard before, from Dean Cundey to Darren Bousman, from Savage Steve Holland to the team of Kevin Kolsh and Dennis Widmyer.

Their knowledge of Ti West to Richard Stanley was informative and entertaining. Their most valuable and informative episodes to me were the extended interviews with two heads of marketing for the DVD label Scream Factory, Jeff Nelson and Cliff McMillan, and with the head of the Twilight Time label, Nick Redman, outlining the practical and financial realities of putting out cult legacy and cult films on blu-ray nowadays.

Don't quote me -- I place the age of these hosts at mid- to late 30s, and obviously having grown of age during the VHS era they know their stuff, certainly from the '80s on. Kane's expertise seems to go backwards in a very art-centric vein while McKendry, the professed academic of the group who mentions her "thesis" more than she should, perversely seems to favor nunsploitation and the Satanic Panic films of the '80s. Galluzzo tends to always keep what could easily turn a dinner party gone wrong on track.

(When they're drinking straight shots during the podcast (admitted to us more than once), he also seems to be the one who can best hold his liquor.)

Continually dropping names of famous people they'd met at conventions, terminally underemployed, and always bragging about which DVDs they'd gotten ahead of release date to review for free, their conversations were woolly and rapid-fire, dropping references we'd be thankful they'd occasionally circle back around to explain when they remembered to. Like the best horror films, we weren't sure what we were getting and the banter could easily get lost before it righted itself again.

I loved it. I like horror because it doesn't politely follows the rules. The worst horror is too polite, takes relatively few chances with narrative; feels too conservative. Horror is supposed to take chances. We love it when a film goes, as I've heard them say many times, off the reservation and a little batshit.

Early this year Galluzzo and McKendry found jobs at Blumhouse Productions (the house that Paranormal Activity and Insidious built) writing and editing for their website. A portal to discuss and report on all things horror, a quite fractured and disorganized space on the net. Seemed like the jobs they were made for.

Determined to remain independent and announcing often early on they would treat Blumhouse films as fairly as any others, a tension began to enter the podcast. Not only having to justify every mention of a Blumhouse film (of which there are many) ("No no, if I didn't like it I would have certainly said so."), it now seemed Kane was suddenly the odd man out, having missed the Blumhouse gravy train (but hey, he's got a job as a teacher) and also having recently lost his hobby coffee house/ screening room business the Jumpcut Café (where many of the current crop of indie filmmakers hung out).

Vague attempts at gaining a sponsor for the POV podcast and the hosts trying to read ad copy in a voice that didn't seep fake sincerity failed miserably and quickly.

Last April the trio rather abruptly announced they were stopping the POV podcast, mouthing excuses of being "too busy" during their last episode which happened to be about sequels that have lived out their welcomes yet kept coming back one more time. (This one after the previous, perhaps also not so coincidentally about horror franchises' "final chapters.") The announcement was sudden, cursory, and uncharacteristically unsentimental, papered over with promises of being back "sooner than you might think."

I sensed underlying intrigue not yet revealed.

A week later it was learned the podcast had magically been resurrected as Shock Waves, under the auspices of -- wait for it -- the Blumhouse podcast network.

Blumhouse Productions, and all the success they've had, is a fascinating movie-making model. Akin to Roger Corman, AIP, and other old exploitation entities for which the POV/Shock Waves hosts have a nostalgic affection ("Tell us what was it like working with Roger Corman again?"), Blumhouse have found the sweet spot between low budgets and marketing to create a 21st century aesthetic brand that's both derided and admired. They've been accused of revitalizing the horror genre in the last 10 years, of ruining it, of taking chances no one else would dare, and of playing it all too safe. All of that is true.

My own fascination with them stems from these very conflicts. I like their films, I often wish they were better, I have been surprised by them, as often not so much.

It's fascinating exactly because it is a model.

The new podcast was almost exactly like the old one, with rundowns of current films, hip guests, lots of insider information and new regular appearances of Ryan Turek...who happens to be the director of development at Blumhouse.

Our heroes had, on the face, been co-opted. Left GeekNation in the lurch, while secret plans for a new, more lucrative podcast (with even more free stuff?) was in the works with the corporate entity Blumhouse. They waited a respectful one week before announcing the new arrangement?

And while the perception of impartiality was still thinly addressed, the Shock Waves iteration couldn't really be believed, no matter how often someone said they didn't like Blumhouse's new Purge film. (All three of them loved the new Purge film.) And while the personalities are the same, the structure, the weekly schedule, the show now seems to have listed about 10% to the right.

Not that it's sinking. But something not quite right. Now they're dropping references to Blumhouse parties where they met the new director of _new film to be released by Blumhouse in December goes here_. McKendry and Galluzzo mention "the article I wrote for the site last week." And there seems just 2 pitches more per inning of even more inside baseball talk among the deskmates from Blumhouse including the well-spoken new member Turek. He seems to have all but silenced McKendry by his sheer presence and willingness to be the first to offer an unpopular (but usually correct) opinion. McKendry has devolved to a busy working mom (two kids) who barely has time to keep up with the site, let alone see all the films Galluzzo and Kane watch all night at Tarantino's fabulous New Beverly cinema, promising to "catch up soon."

(We never did hear their take when Tarantino ousted long-time manager Michael Torgan, which first alerted us to the fact even among our hosts, there are politics.)

I have a feeling she pines for the days when they'd talk about old Italian snuff films. And Kane's snobbery and occasional tone-deaf douchery has mellowed, possibly because he now has a vague deal for a film he's written and hopes to direct (and keeping it relatively down low -- he wouldn't want to be the one to jinx it).

The shows still averaged over 2 hours as before, but they recently started to cut them into one-hour segments for our listening pleasure, the rambles being the first half and then an extended conversation the second part. More episodes, you can pick which half you liked better, and no one complains you went on too damn long.

Are they pulling punches? Not necessarily. Have the rough edges been sanded off? Maybe they're just getting better at what they do. Am I constantly reminded Blumhouse Productions is the primary source of 3 of the 4 hosts' gainful employment? Once every 5 minutes.

I'm reading between the lines here. It's easy to hate on something that gets popular. Like Star Wars or Nolan after Batman. I prefer Woody Allen's earlier funnier movies. The show arguably had quite a fanbase and influence before, helping Gardner's The Battery and Begos's Almost Human get wider audiences. I don't know the numbers here, but a higher profile must mean more listeners. I just don't happen to be a faithful one anymore.

I used to listen to every one front to back, regardless of topic.

I don't know if it's just perception on my part there's some hidden agenda. The ghost of a conflict of interest is inescapable. The lady doth protest too much. I could call out that every interview seems tied to an upcoming release -- but who else would spend 2 hours talking to Larry fucking Cohen about a documentary that isn't even in post yet.

I appreciated that, Elric. But my nerdy drunken horror friends aren't entertaining me like they used to. I don't bemoan them a living. But the show has become more polite. It's not surprising me. It's no longer going to go batshit.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

How to Win Your Office's Oscar Pool

It's the end of February and the Super Bowl is history. That means the fantasy football betting at work has been temporarily replaced by the Oscar pools.

Should be easy to win the pot on this, right? A lot fewer variables than the NFL.

The problem is no one's always got a clear line on who's gonna win the Oscars. They aren't really about which pictures are the best, so much as an excuse to have a 3-hour worldwide commercial for Hollywood (and so do they really care if it goes over the scheduled time?).

The raison d'etre of the show has always been showing clips, reminding you to rent last year's winners on VOD (oh yeah, Birdman), the nervous glamour on the red carpet, Kate's (and Cate's) designer dresses, and who's so drunk they mess up their acceptance speech.

But who gets the gold statues is increasingly impossible to predict -- #OscarsSoWhite not withstanding. The Academy tries each year to be more inclusive, nominating films no one's heard of, letting James Franco and Anne Hathaway host (ruin) the 2011, and featuring well-meaning foreign-based issue pictures for lesser awards to class up the joint.

How can you possibly win your Oscar poll this year? The secret to remember is the best films and performances seldom -- never -- get the prizes.

You saw who won the Golden Globes (The Martian as best comedy or musical, it must have been that Abba music on the boombox), and what the Spirit Awards has nominated (Carol, which only appears in the acting and adapted screenplay categories among Oscar's major awards). The most popular films of the year aren't even nominated (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, and Avengers: Age of Ultron aren't "Oscar material"--they don't need the extra publicity push).

Inside Out, the 4th highest grosser of 2015, is safe, being in the animation ghetto; also, it's a little girl's bike. The front-runner among the best picture nominees, The Revenant at #17, is modest enough to pass the art-over-commerce test.

None of these are predictors for how to mark your ballot. But you can have the inside track, beat that Oscar pool and annoy your co-workers as you agree to take them to lunch next week when you trump the odds.

Here are the things to remember:

1. Don't watch any of the films beforehand.

No. Really. Millions of people try to see all the nominees in the weeks leading up to the broadcast to give the ballot an objective, fair ranking.


Measures of quality will only confuse and confound you. What wins has little or nothing to do with actual accomplishment and everything to do with who's sleeping with who, whether or not the grosses were too big (but not too small), how many little people you pushed aside on the way up, or if they forgot to nominate you last year.  

This is inside baseball and you're better to read Deadline Hollywood than Manohla Dargis. Does it feel like it should win? What looks good on the front page tomorrow will statistically win more than the best film.

The more culturally acceptable and polite, the better the odds. Ergo, Crash beats Brokeback Mountain (2005), Out of Africa beats The Color Purple (1985), Ordinary People beats Raging Bull (1980), Kramer vs. Kramer beats Apocalypse Now (1979), the list goes on. The losers, all worthy, were made by young turks and maybe those guys hadn't paid their dues yet.

Their time will come (see 3 below). Shakespeare In Love won over Saving Private Ryan (1998), but that upset seemed to be about the size of Spielberg's bank account. Plus, Spielberg. (Nothing against any of the winners, but no one's teaching Gandhi in film school nowadays.)

The winner can't embarrass anyone when it's picked. If you steer clear of quality, you're alright. It's strictly business. Deserve's got nothing to do with it.

The runners-up tend to engage with youth culture, which brings us to:

2. The Academy is old (and white) (and male).

The real truth is the Academy (spoiler alert) picks what it understands, and being made up predominately of old men who used to work in the industry (who are also, yes, mostly white) this year as much as any made it clear the field inadvertently gets biased towards films they feel comfortable with.

The voting ranks are filled with professionals at one point were nominated for or won an Oscar, or were invited by their peers (white, male nominees) to join.  It ends up being a self-selecting "minority" of the majority.

And until this year, you didn't leave the Academy until you died. The average age is 74. It is not a democracy. So imagine a screener of Straight Out Of Compton hitting a retired cinematographer's mailbox along with Spotlight. Which one gets popped in first?

Those Academy members might have voted for Compton when they were 22, but they weren't in the Academy when they were 22.

Remember who's casting the votes, and you can't go wrong on your Oscar poll. What would rich grandpa vote for?

(The Academy has recently revised its voting rules so that anyone who hasn't been "active" in the industry loses their voting status. This ensures younger voters will have more of a voice in future nominees, and will, for the good, dramatically change future ballots. Tab Hunter however will still be allowed to participate.)

(The full effect of this change remains to be seen. Next year's meme: #OscarsSoYoung.)

3. Timing is everything.

Oscar history is rife with people who won for "last year's performance," when the Academy failed to honor what they should have and are now playing catch-up.

Did Paul Newman really win in 1986 for The Color of Money, or for Cool Hand Luke, Hud, The Verdict, The Hustler, or Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, all of which he was nominated for but didn't win?

Jeff Bridges's Crazy Heart win (2009) is really acknowledgement for a long career of solid work. It's not because he did anything special in Crazy Heart he hadn't already done better in, for example, The Big Lebowski.

And speaking of the Coen Brothers, they've made better pictures than No Country For Old Men (2007) and there were better pictures that year, too. But there might not be another chance. (Hasn't been so far.) The Academy realizes time is running out. The Departed? MillionDollar Baby? Thanks for the memories, boys.

(This doesn't explain Argo.)

4. The "trash" awards.

All those minor awards -- documentary shorts, make-up, editing that take up the middle hour while you're making more margaritas and surreptitiously changing your ballot when the boss isn't looking? Just flip a coin. Only people in certain guilds are allowed to nominate and vote on these and who knows what the hell they think?

Difference between sound editing and sound mixing? Time for another margarita.

Besides, your poll probably only assigns a single point to each of these, a handful of darts in the dark. Odds are no one will get any more right than you did. (N.B: If it's French, knock it out. If the animated short's about a cat, automatic win.)

5. It ain't fair.

Mad Max: Fury Road consistently impresses in all the categories it's nominated for. I predict it'll win nothing important. It's a Mad Max movie. This is the Oscars. In a fair fight, Spielberg and Boyle would be with the director and Samuel L. Jackson would be representing The Hateful 8 instead of Jennifer Jason Leigh.

But Matt Damon lost all that weight on Mars and Leonardo DiCaprio wrestled a real bear.

Now you have the inside track. Good luck!